Sixty years after the end of World War II, Japan has attained a high level of affluence and convenience. On the other side of the coin, though, concern is spreading about the safety of our daily lives.
Japan for a long time was described as the safest country in the world in terms of public order, but in a survey conducted by the Ministry of Justice last year, three of every four respondents replied that public order is in decline.
There are two main reasons for this. The first is the increase in the number of crimes. The crime-incidence rate (the number of police-recognized criminal offenses per 100,000 population) continued on a downward trend following the period of confusion after the end of World War II, but it has been on the rise since the mid-1970s.
The types of crime have changed as well. The number of cases of purse-snatching and house break-ins has increased. In rural areas, incidents of burglary targeting elderly people living alone — which sometimes lead to the murder of potential eyewitnesses and are often committed by criminals on “business trips” from urban areas — have become all too frequent. More and more people seem to worry that they could become victims wherever they live, not just in large cities like Tokyo or Osaka.
Organized crime gangs in search of new sources of illicit income are spreading their tentacles into areas such as illegal financing and bank-transfer fraud, which targets ordinary citizens.
The second reason for the perception of worsening public order is the drastic change in social environments, especially the diversification of criminal methods that include wider use of cars and cell phones. Also, the increasingly impersonal nature of big city life makes it difficult for the police to obtain information or get eyewitnesses to cooperate.
As a result, the perpetrators of violent crimes such as homicide and armed robbery, as well as people who steal from vacant houses in the local community, are not getting nabbed as frequently as before. There have been years in which 70 percent of crimes were considered “solved”; that proportion dropped below 50 percent at the end of the 1980s. In the past few years, it has dropped to as low as 20 percent.
This slump has been caused partly by the decreasing availability of police investigative manpower as the number of crimes, per se, and their diversity grow. Still, Japan’s crime-incidence rate is said to be less than half of that of the United States and European countries. So, it would appear that if proper measures are taken, lost ground in the perception of public order could be regained.
Two key pillars of countermeasures will boost police capacity and eliminating the background causes of crime. The first entails changing the priorities of police work to create a police force that the public can trust. Vacant police boxes should be manned, patrols and other outdoor duties should be strengthened, and police duties should pivot around detective work, crime prevention and traffic affairs.
Boosting police capabilities also requires that state-of-the-art technologies be utilized. The National Police Agency is building a database of DNA information and installing devices for automatically reading license numbers on motor vehicles, but these measures have aroused criticism from those concerned about privacy protection. Efforts should be made to gain the understanding of the public by establishing legislation that discloses operating standards.
Regarding the background causes of crime, one theory has it that the local community, which at one time acted as a deterrent against crime, underwent a transformation during the age of economic growth. If we accept this theory, then the key to restoring public order lies in revitalizing the local community.
The government has proposed “building secure and safe communities.” This means working to give people a sense of safety not only in entertainment districts but also in central business and residential areas. Concrete plans and budgetary measures for this purpose are urgently needed.
Participation of the public in this process is essential. Crime mirrors the society in which we live. Cases involving abuses of information technology have become noteworthy of late. We should expect crime to diversify further.
The recovery of public order was not a focal point in the recent general election, but there should certainly be a broad discussion of the issue. Efforts to eliminate crimes in ordinary neighborhoods are as important as the fight against terrorism.
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